For insomniacs everywhere – freeing yourself from the tyranny of sleep.

I wonder whether there was ever a time when I slept. When my children were young I used to dream of when they were old enough to wake, go to the loo and get their own cereal and plonk themselves QUIETLY in front of the telly and I would sleep and sleep. It never happened and I still cannot sleep and even when I do its such a light sleep that the most slightest of noises or movement and I am awake. When desperate I take one tablet of Valerian but even though this is supposed to be half the dose, it completely knocks me out and I wake up feeling lethargic.

A couple of nights ago I came across this essay by Aminatta Forno on insomnia. Two things really stood out. First her comment on our obsession with sleep which is probably a good part of the reason we cannot sleep. By 2am I am in a panic because now there are only 5 hours left for me to get the sleep I need to function the next day – this totalitarian sleep control and guaranteed to extend the insomnia into the early hours of the morning. Some nights I function perfectly OK with only 2, 3 hours. Others, I can do nothing not even sleep maybe for two three days. The other point she makes is – sleep time somehow feels like wasted time. There is so much to do, how irritating that we have to take 7/8 hours a day to sleep! The crazy thing about sleep, a point also made by Aminatta, is that I never feel rested afterwards. Just groggy and exhausted from dreams, nightmares and anxieties over all the little things that for those hours became monumental hills which could not possibly be climbed.

After reading this I no longer feel so bad about my insomnia – its peaceful at night and yes if you do go out at 2 / 3am the roads are clear, and every once in a while you come across a cafe or bar where other late nighters and insomniacs are gathered – free of the tyranny of sleep!

Ten years ago I lost the gift of sleep. I had left my full-time job and begun work on a difficult memoir, one that involved going to and from a war zone. I was under stress. I went to the doctor, who prescribed Zopiclone. But the sleeping pills didn’t work, so I stopped taking them. I assumed that sleep would return in its own time, but it never did.

Last night I slept in a new place and, as usual with new places, woke at four in the morning. The night before I had slept even less. I had a flight to catch the next day. I went to bed at midnight and at 3.30 I was awake and staring at the thin strip of street light between the curtains. I was anxious about the flight. Then I remembered that I had left a sentence unfinished in a piece of writing. Small anxieties stretched into long worms, burrowing through the brain. As the hours passed I began to feel the sensation with which I’ve become familiar: a nervous tension, a rising nausea. The more I chase sleep, the more it hides from me. Sleep is a temperamental creature: quicksilver, quixotic, stubborn and seductive.

Yes, those are bad nights.

Then there are the good nights. I don’t mean the nights when sleep comes and stays with me, though those are good, too. I mean the nights when insomnia feels like something special. One night in December as I prepared for bed I opened the curtain and saw the first flakes of snow float down. At four o’clock I was awake. I left my bed, pulled on some jeans and a coat and stepped out into the street. Thick snow reflected the light of a bright Moon. I walked up to a park at the top of the hill. Ahead, a vixen ploughed the same path and turned to look at me every few seconds. She was watching me, working out my intentions, keeping a distance between us. But that night, the only two creatures in a whitened world, it looked like something else, as though she wanted me to follow her.

In the decade during which I searched for my lost gift, I wandered out into the night on many occasions. There I met other insomniacs in parks and open spaces across London. Sometimes I drove through the streets, saw the single light burning in a row of darkened houses and recognised the lonely beacon of the insomniac. I practised something called “good sleep hygiene”, bathed in lavender baths and drank tisanes of valerian. I abandoned coffee after midday, bought earplugs. I became intensely aware how obsessed we are with sleep. We tell each other to sleep well and in the morning ask: “How did you sleep?” We all, not just insomniacs, count the number of hours we’ve had as obsessively as an anorexic counting calories. Parents suffer sleep deprivation, buy books and train their children to sleep alone, in the dark and on command.

The truth is that I never did much care for sleep. It feels like time wasted. When I do sleep, I dream intensely. I have sometimes been able to stop and start dreams, to think “oh, hell, it’s just a dream” and skydive from a light aircraft. If that sounds fun, it is. But if the dreams are vivid, so are the nightmares. Sleep leaves me exhausted as often as it leaves me rested.

Yet I envy sleepers. In Sam Kiley’s book about the war in Afghanistan, Desperate Glory, he writes about sleep the night before a battle, the “lucky ones” who manage it, and everyone else. In the middle of the book I came across a photograph of a soldier in full battledress, holding a rifle, head propped against a wall – asleep. What I felt in that moment – hugely and with a surge of hot shame – was envy. In the end, Kiley writes, sleep is learnt, you catch it when you can – because your life depends on it. ………Continue reading